In a time of war, poverty, violence, and pitched political and personal battles, are we able to face the harm we cause, allow, or even excuse? We must, says Jewish author, essayist, op-ed writer, and social activist Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. She points to a guide who might steer us to transforming ourselves and our society — the medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides— in her new book, On Repentance and Repair: Making Amends in an Unapologetic World (Beacon, Sept.)
Ruttenberg is scholar in residence for the National Council of Jewish Women and a leader of the Council's abortion access and rights network, Rabbis for Repro. She has written or edited eight books including a memoir on growing into faith from an atheist teenager, Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion (Beacon, 2008); an essay collection by 17 authors, The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (NYU, 2009), which PW reviewed and called Ruttenberg "a wunderkind of Jewish feminism;" and Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder, and Radical Amazement of Parenting (Flatiron, 2016), which was a National Jewish Book Award finalist.
On Repentance and Repair releases just weeks Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. But Ruttenberg says Maimonides' advice holds true for anyone of any faith or none who seeks to wipe their soul's slate clean. She writes in the book that you can "pray and weep and pour out your heart (to God), but it’s not going to do a dang thing until you’ve actually done the work... You must own the harm you have caused, you must do the work to change, you must make amends, apologize, and, if the opportunity arises, you must make different choices next time."
PW talked with Ruttenberg about why she sees this transformative process as hard, hopeful, and essential. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
The book deals with several types of abuse and harm—sexual, emotional, individual and collective, private and public — and you have a trigger warning in your opening notes. What inspired you to take on this topic?
The topic picked me. The book came about in the wake of the #MeToo movement when people asked me to comment on what high-profile men who had harmed women could or should do to get back in the public's good graces. There is a way back, but we don't give participation trophies to people whose publicists write their apologies. We can't check off boxes instead of facing others' rage and pain and uncertainty and fear. Evading responsibility is a dominant model in our culture. I'm proposing a fundamental cultural paradigm shift that invites accountability, centers on those who have been harmed and what they need to heal, and simultaneously charts a path for those who committed harm to try to find a new way forward that involves bravely facing really hard stuff.
Some readers may be startled by your view on forgiveness. You write that, from a Jewish perspective, only victims of harm can forgive, not some third party or later generation, and that forgiveness cannot be expected, demanded, or coerced. Why so?
Forgiveness is generally understood as a way of making all the unpleasantness go away so those involved can feel like the problem has vanished. The perp gets a pass. It is a really fabulous way to inscribe power dynamics. If you forgive, then everything can go back to the way it was and no one will demand that things be different. If the non-profit employee forgives the donor who harassed her, we can keep the money and not make any changes in how we process complaints. Historian Sharrona Pearl noticed how often families of unarmed Black people murdered by police, are asked by the media if they forgive the killers. If they don't forgive, that puts the onus on the state and society to do some work. The work of the harmdoer is to repair the harm and whether you know or don't know if you were forgiven, it is still on you to repair the damage.
You mention Pearl's research in the book. Can you cite someone who exemplifies how to follow the Maimonides/Ruttenberg path?
Lizzo is modeling this beautifully. She used a harmful word on a new album song. Once she learned why it was harmful, she owned it fully and publicly. She apologized to all she harmed and released the song in a new version without the slur. She educated herself and others and did it with grace and class.
You deal with not only harms in the headlines today but with harms decades, even centuries old. You write, "We are held accountable for the harm that was done before our time—for all the injurious deeds that we have held on to, for all that we have not actively worked to undo." How so?
It's a basic power analysis: Denying intent or saying you weren't born then or that someone doesn't have a racist bone in their body is irrelevant. It's a way of saying no change is necessary and even if it were, it's not on you to take responsibility. We’ve all caused harm, we’ve all been harmed, we’ve all witnessed harm. We are all always growing in our messy, imperfect attempts to do right, to clean up, to repair, to make sense of what’s happened, and to figure out where to go from here... While we can’t undo the past, we can address the present with integrity and endeavor to create a future that is much more whole than anything we can imagine from here.
What is your goal for the reader?
The goal is to become different, to be transformed.